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[AUGUST 2013.]

Night Music

When I lived in Portland I bought a cheap cello off eBay. It had a glued crack coming out of an f-hole, but even after it had fallen over multiple times and the crack had crept all the way down to the edge, I was still happy with it because it looked like a cello. I put stickers on the fingerboard, learned to bungle some scales and used it on a couple of recordings. Then I went to school, had a kid, the cello went into the closet, and a decade later the cello came out of the closet and made me cry. Tear-spattered cello. Lacrimosa. Embarrassing.

On my thirty-fourth birthday I found the cello decorated with a poem describing its quiet life among the guitars, and a list of local teachers. I called one; though that particular cello and that particular teacher were not to meet, since when I took it into the violin shop for repair I very clearly saw Mr. Gu, at his artisan’s desk, take one look at my eBay special and shake his head in regret. I rented a replacement.

The lessons have been going just shy of a year, and before each session I still have the same fear as when I used to teach. Apparently it doesn’t matter which side of the relation I’m on; the closeness of it, the context of evaluation, is something I’ll never find comfortable. I could never stand to read the comments professors left on my essays, not even the admiring ones, and I never read the course evaluations from the last class I taught at Berkeley, the one that actually went well. It’s not, God knows, a belief that I have nothing to learn. The animal recoil is an old fear of opening a trapdoor, though it’s a trapdoor no one can keep shut all the time.

Because the teacher is gifted and the lessons are wonderful and useful, I keep going to them. I play the cello almost every night after R. goes to bed, because on good nights the sounds are enjoyable in themselves and do not provoke inquiries about my status. R. is aware of it as one of the creatures of the house, that goes abroad while she sleeps. She has helped me to play it a few times. I want her to have none of my mental hiccups, but when she does, I want at least to tell her what time can do, how it can wear old thorns down to minor aches, the kind of thing you treat with bath salts.

yes yes yes

I like Auden, but there are these lines... like the couplet where Time “will pardon Paul Claudel / Pardons him for writing well,” when the only words of pardon that Time has for Claudel, or for anyone, are “Paul who?”

Pardons him for minor tertians

The impulse to keep a journal without having anything to put in the journal: you get a log book recording the day’s sunrise and sunset, and otherwise showing nothing but the strain of building oneself a temple. (What detractors say about Valéry’s Cahiers; all you see is him play-acting the sort of man whose cahiers are read by posterity.) Reading extracts from Leopardi’s Zibaldone is humbling. He doesn’t have time to watch himself think; he doesn’t know how not to think.

Unless his art is in that very effect?

Strength, originality, richness, sublimity, and even nobility of style can to a great degree come from nature, character, and education; or as a result of the latter those stylistic habits may be acquired in short time, and once acquired they can be put into practice with no real trouble. It is different with clarity and, especially nowadays, simplicity—by which I mean the quality almost identical with naturalness and the contrary of perceptible affectation of any kind in material, style, and composition. Clarity and simplicity (and thus charm, which cannot exist without them, and is for the most part, and often, merely another name for them) are entirely and always the work, the gift, and the effect of art. They are the basic, indispensable, indeed absolutely necessary, excellences of any writing: without them all the other virtues are worth nothing; with them no writing, though it possess these alone, is ever contemptible. Clarity and simplicity, which must appear most natural, spontaneous, easy, and most easily achievable—qualities which it may be said consist precisely in completely concealing art and avoiding the faintest suggestion of the artificial and labored—these very qualities are precisely those which only art can produce. They are achieved only by study, are the most difficult to acquire the habit of, and are such that, once the habit is acquired, it cannot truly be put into practice without the greatest pains.

Zibaldone, 26 July 1823, tr. Ottavio Mark Casale

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